Cat’s Table and Gold Fish

I’ve just finished Michael Ondaatje’s latest, The Cat’s Table. I didn’t get the ecstatic high from this novel that I did from The English Patient. His new one is too easy to put down and walk away from, not even a novel, really, so much as a collection of vignettes clustered around a character/narrator in whom I never really invested.

But look on the bright side—I’ve stumbled on something that feels like a perfect blog topic, something that stopped me in my tracks. Here’s what I found on page 208:

Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves. We should not feel assured or certain about their motives, or lookdown on them. I believe this. I recognize this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion that many would not.

I had to read this passage twice when I stumbled across it, slipped in almost off-handedly, near the end of the book, where the narrator speaks to us as an adult, years after his experience at the eponymous dining table of ne’er do wells aboard a ship from Ceylon to England. Even now, when I read it, I feel my writerly hackles rise. (I’m not sure where my hackles are, exactly, but I know they’re stiff with indignation.) I am not so naïve as to assume what I’ve quoted is necessarily Ondaatje’s position, rather than the narrator’s, but there’s nothing in his rambling, uncertain novel to suggest it isn’t, either. In any case, the philosophy here is surely the one that governs the work of the real-life film director/ writer/teacher mentioned in this paragraph. But to take the democratic impulse that sparked the Dardenne brothers’ early documentary films about working class life in Belgium, and elevate it to a “first principle of art,” feels like a mistake, whether Ondaatje’s or his character’s.

By proposing as a moral and aesthetic mandate that readers should not have the upper hand, but should remain as mystified as our characters, as uncertain and ill at ease in the world –no wiser, no more confident than when they opened the book, Ondaatje’s narrator dismisses most of what I’ve always felt, written and taught about “empowering the reader.” His injunction also flies in the face of how powerful and moving I find many stories in which the author has deliberately contrived that the reader know more than the characters. This is especially the case with “unreliable narrators” like the butler, Stevens, in Ishiguro’s brilliant novel, Remains of the Day; or with omniscient narrators and multiple view points in the great novels of the 19th century—it’s because we watch Jane Austen’s characters part and come together in kaleidoscopic patterns only we are aware of, that we can see them as tender, flawed. It’s because we know more than Thomas Hardy’s Tess that we love her. An empowered reader, it seems to me, is the basis of much fine literature, just as a privileged observer (who sees, for instance, an echo of the playful dance and eyes of Matisse’s “Goldfish” in the nodding heads of the flowers above them) is the basis of much great art.


Does this broader perspective, this “advantage,” make us feel scornful of characters, as Ondaatje suggests? Do we feel smug because we know what their future holds? Or how their past is shaping them? No more, I think, than the author who wrote them into being looks down on or dismisses them. No more than the artist scorns goldfish or lilies when he paints them to say something about the world.

The English Patient ranks as one of the most emotionally excruciating novels I’ve read. A large part of its profound effect, I think, can be attributed to the way in which Ondaatje makes us privy to the feelings of all five major characters. (In The Cat’s Table, he essentially limits us to the perspective of his narrator.) Unlike these characters, then, we can weave a tapestry from all their individual sensitivities and passions, making something deeper, more profound than any of them could forge on their own. Playing God this way doesn’t make writers or readers smaller of heart, but larger. By knowing more than our cherished characters, we can be both a tender mother bird with her wing around the world, and her nestling snuggled into the warm feathers of creation.

When he pairs empowerment with condescension in the passage above, Ondaatje sets up a straw man, and begs the important issue of a reader’s relationship to the fictional world, a relationship I don’t think has to mirror her relationship to the real one. I’m a reader, you see, who’s frustrated by a lack of resolution, by an aimless story that, like a painting which resolutely and faithfully portrays every pore and hair follicle with photographic fidelity, gives us a “slice of life,” not its juice. I don’t confuse reality with fiction. And I don’t want to: while our chaotic existence may inspire paintings or books, their art is born from the courage to give it meaning and grace.


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4 responses to “Cat’s Table and Gold Fish

  1. Julie Larios

    Louise, what a thought-provoking post! And I agree with you – Ondaatje’s premise seems off. Characters might know things about themselves that we don’t know, and there is something tantalizing in that, but certainly the opposite can be true, no? Readers can know something about them that the characters themselves don’t know. Knowing these things creates sympathy in the reader, because the character becomes more vulnerable. I felt that way the whole time I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, and I can’t imagine Ondaatje thinking it only works one direction – not only that, but he seems to think that his narrow perspective is “a first principle of art.”

    This discussion reminds me of the writing exercise where you look at a photo of your parents on their wedding day and write about it – those two people know things about that day and about their lives that you will never know, and you know things about their future that they couldn’t know at the moment the photo was taken. Imagine first what one of them knows (or both of them know) about that day that you were never told. Then imagine what they don’t know at that point in their lives about what the future holds – being very specific. It works both ways, this imagining, and allowing the reader to know something the character doesn’t know is an act of inclusion. (By the way, I didn’t invent that exercise – I read about it – and right now I can’t remember where! But it’s out there, being used, in writing workshops….)

    • louisehawes

      What a great exercise, Julie! And it reminds me why I love omniscient narration. What we don’t know, as characters, can enrich the reader. What we don’t know as readers, can’t. Remember the opening of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE? We are asked to be the conscience of the forest, “the eyes in the trees.” I loved that invitation more than anything else in the book!

  2. Isn’t that the whole point of thinking of art as illusion? Not deception–when it crosses that line we get annoyed and close the book–but the illusion of another reality. I’d take this as the narrator’s viewpoint and not Ondaatje’s, although I must say that the narrative voice in The Cat’s Table annoyed me at times. That passage is about Miss Lasqueti’s motivations, but it, like many others, felt purely gratuitous. Julie, I’m fascinated by the positioning of narrative voice in terms of this set of variables–what does the narrator know and what must remain hidden? We think of the voice of God as all-knowing but when a divine presence is a created narrator then he/she/it too has feelings. Does emotional stance limit knowing? I don’t know but that’s a great question to ponder. I think it’s all sleight of hand, and when it’s well done the whole thing coheres and the author’s hand remains unseen. Thanks, Lou, for a great post!

    • louisehawes

      Yes, Uma! “The voice of God.” Isn’t that what omniscient narration is in the created world of a novel? And isn’t it the trickiest and headiest of all propositions to take responsibility for that world, to love it without judgment? And without such narration, in fiction confined to a single POV, isn’t it the reader and the author who must always collaborate to know more than the character?

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